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Music

Stagecoach 2017: Willie Nelson ‘Still Not Dead’ and glad to celebrate his 84th birthday with fans

Willie Nelson performs on the second day of the Stagecoach festival in Indio on Saturday, which happened to be his 84th birthday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Willie Nelson was the very essence of “chill” ahead of his spotlight performance Saturday night, despite the fact that he’d soon be taking the stage at the world’s biggest country music festival, in front of a few thousand rabid fans, a new album just released and on his 84th birthday no less.

Even without aroma of any relaxation-enhancing smoke in evidence, Nelson took it all in stride as he sat in his fabled touring bus, where he spends more time year in and year out than any stationary properties he owns.

Another birthday? No big deal. “Whenever it turns up,” he said from his bench at a small table where business or meals are carried out, “there it is again.”

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The new album, “God’s Problem Child,” is a noteworthy one for the Red-Headed Stranger, who has kept up an imposing recording pace in recent years, averaging two albums a year.

In recent times, they’ve mostly been devoted to songs written by others, such as his collections saluting his mentor and former boss Ray Price (“For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price”), the Great American Songbook (“Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” the latter featuring his sister, pianist Bobbie Nelson) and duets with female partners (“To All the Girls...”).

On “God’s Problem Child,” however, Nelson and longtime songwriter collaborator Buddy Cannon, who also produced this one, have written seven new songs, the most bountiful batch of Nelson songs on one of his albums since 2014’s “Band of Brothers.”

“Buddy and I write pretty spontaneously,” Nelson said. “I’ll write a verse, he’ll write another and then send it back, and next thing you know we’ll need a melody, then we’ll cut it. That’s how it often happens. He and I work well together. We think a lot alike and so it’s easy to write with him.”

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“We have other stuff we’ve recorded, tracks that we stacked up through the years that we haven’t put out,” he said, “so there’s probably another album or two back there like that.”

The one new track he included in his Stagecoach set Saturday is “Still Not Dead,” which he has been performing live for some time. It’s a humorous take on Internet rumors that dog many celebrities. “I woke up still not dead again today,” he sings. “The gardener did not find me that way.”

But there’s a nugget of sincerity in another of the song’s lines: “Please don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play,” which rings true of the guiding principle of his nonstop touring life over the last half a century.

“Delete and Fast Forward” also brings a light touch to a serious subject: the current turbulent political climate in this country and around the world.

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“Delete and fast forward my son/The elections are over and nobody won/You think it’s all ending but it’s just settin’ in/So delete and fast forward my friend”

“It’s a circus out there,” Nelson said with a smile. “So it’s appropriate. It kind of fits where we are right now.”

A visitor referenced a segment on CNN earlier in the day focusing on the tense situation playing out in North Korea, during which a political commentator stated, “You’ve got a guy who’s volatile, he’s unpredictable; is he sane, is he insane?”

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To which Nelson interjected with a laugh, “Which one are you talking about? You can’t tell the difference?” That echoed CNN host Wolf Blitzer’s own interruption, asking the speaker “You’re talking about Kim Jong Un?”

But Nelson took the longer view, remarking to another guest on the bus, “You had eight years of one thing, you might have eight years of this, then we’ll get something else. It’s like they say about the weather: If you don’t like it, wait a bit and it’ll change.”

One aspect of life Nelson is upbeat about is the crop of independent-minded young singers and songwriters such as Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell and Margo Price, (who also played Saturday and popped on board the bus to deliver Nelson a birthday gift).

“I see some of them coming up,” he said. “They used to call us outlaws, I guess we can call them outlaws. They’re coming along doing what they want to do their own way and people are liking it, so end of story.”

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randy.lewis@latimes.com

Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter.com

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